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Is there historical evidence for the darkness & earthquake at the crucifixion?

"And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour." (Mark 15:33) 
During the last three hours of Jesus’ death on the cross, an unusual darkness struck the land. This darkness was most definitely a result of God's direct intervention, because it can't have been a solar eclipse for the following two reasons:
  1. The maximum duration for a total solar eclipse is seven minutes, not three hours, and at the latitude of Jerusalem the maximum duration is even less. 
  2. A solar eclipse can occur only at new moon, but we know that Jesus was crucified at the time of Passover (Matthew 26:2; Mark 14:1–2,12; Luke 22:1–2, 7; John 13:1), and that the Passover is at the time of full moon (Exodus 12:1–11; Leviticus 23:5).
The New Testament records the three-hour darkness during Christ’s crucifixion (Matthew 27:45, Mark 15:33, Luke 23:44–45).

But it is also confirmed by four other historians outside the Bible: Phlegon, Thallus, Africanus and Tertullian. These historians attempt to interpret the darkness as a direct effect of a solar eclipse which we know is scientifically not possible - but they wouldn't have known that in their time.

Evidence from Phlegon

Phlegon was a Greek historian who wrote an extensive chronology around AD 137. Phlegon provides powerful confirmation, identifying the year and the exact time of day. In addition, he writes of an earthquake accompanying the darkness, which is specifically recorded in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 27:51): 
"In the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad (i.e., AD 33) there was ‘the greatest eclipse of the sun’ and that ‘it became night in the sixth hour of the day [i.e., noon] so that stars even appeared in the heavens. There was a great earthquake in Bithynia, and many things were overturned in Nicaea.’"1

Evidence from Africanus

Africanus composed a five volume History of the World around AD 221. He was also a pagan convert to Christianity. Africanus writes:
"On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun. For the Hebrews celebrate the passover on the 14th day according to the moon, and the passion of our Savior falls on the day before the passover; but an eclipse of the sun takes place only when the moon comes under the sun. And it cannot happen at any other time but in the interval between the first day of the new moon and the last of the old, that is, at their junction: how then should an eclipse be supposed to happen when the moon is almost diametrically opposite the sun? Let opinion pass however; let it carry the majority with it; and let this portent of the world be deemed an eclipse of the sun, like others a portent only to the eye. Phlegon records that, in the time of Tiberius Caesar, at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth hour to the ninth—manifestly that one of which we speak. But what has an eclipse in common with an earthquake, the rending rocks, and the resurrection of the dead, and so great a perturbation throughout the universe? Surely no such event as this is recorded for a long period."2

Evidence from Thallus

Thallus wrote a history of the eastern Mediterranean world since the Trojan War. Thallus wrote his regional history in about AD 52.6. Unfortunately his original writings have been lost, however he is specifically quoted by Julius Africanus as in the quote above, and Africanus was a renowned third century historian. Africanus stated, ‘Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away the darkness as an eclipse of the sun—unreasonably as it seems to me.’ 3 Thallus attempted to give a naturalistic explanation to the darkness during the crucifixion.

Evidence from Tertullian

An additional possible reference to the Darkness, is related by St. Tertullian (160-220), in his Apology addressed to the "rulers of the Roman Empire". He also writes of the Darkness at Christ's Crucifixion:
"And yet, nailed upon the cross, He exhibited many notable signs, by which His death was distinguished from all others. At His own free-will, He with a word dismissed from Him His spirit, anticipating the executioner’s work. In the same hour, too, the light of day was withdrawn, when the sun at the very time was in his meridian blaze. Those who were not aware that this had been predicted about Christ, no doubt thought it an eclipse. You yourselves have the account of the world-portent still in your archives."4

Earthquake, April 3, 33 A.D

After three hours of darkness at midday on April 3, 33 A.D., Jesus died on the cross. Immediately, the curtain of the sanctuary of the temple was torn, a great earthquake occurred, and rocks were broken.

“And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open.” (Matthew 27:50-51)
In Wadi Ze’elim, located above the southwestern shore of the modern Dead Sea exists an outcrop of laminated Dead Sea sediment. This sediment outcrop is a distinctive one-foot thick “mixed layer” of sediment that is tied strongly to the Qumran earthquake’s onshore ground ruptures of 31 B.C. (see Figure 2 below).

Thirteen inches above the 31 B.C. event bed is another distinctive “mixed layer” less than one inch thick. The sedimentation rate puts this second earthquake about 65 years after the 31 B.C. earthquake! (31 B.C. + 65 yrs = 33 A.D) There is direct physical evidence in the thin layer of disturbed sediment from the Dead Sea, of an earthquake around 33 A.D. The evidence also shows it likely to have been a magnitude 5.5.

Secular Geologist, Jefferson Williams of Supersonic Geophysical, and colleagues Markus Schwab and Achim Brauer of the German Research Center for Geosciences, researched the Dead Sea and revealed that at least two major earthquakes occurred: A widespread earthquake in 31 B.C. and a seismic event that happened sometime between the years 26 and 36. Thus, this earthquake was clearly the one at Jesus' crucifixion. 

These are powerful evidences for the historicity of the darkness at Christ’s crucifixion, and the earthquake. They were real historical events.


    1 Maier, Paul. Pontius Pilate (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1968), p. 366. Phlegon’s citation is a fragment from Olympiades he Chronika 13, ed. Otto Keller, Rerum Naturalium Scriptores Graeci Minores, 1 (Leipzig Teurber, 1877), p. 101.

    2 Julius Africanus, Extant Writings, XVIII in The Ante–Nicene Fathers, ed. by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), vol. VI, p. 130, as cited in Gary R. Habermas, The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ, (Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Company), 1996.

    3 Habermas, Gary. The Historical Jesus, pp. 196-7, College Press Publishing Company, 1996.

    4 Tertullian, Apologeticus, Chapter 21, 19 cited in Bouw, G. D. (1998, Spring). The darkness during the crucifixion. The Biblical Astronomer, 8(84). Retrieved November 30, 2006 from [2]. Tertullian, Apologeticus, Chapter 21, 19

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